Lots of llamas…in Chile
Paula Sinclair was the lucky winner of a previous Chile competition we ran, and embarked on the Splendours of Chile group tour as her prize. Here she recounts her experience…
Prior to embarking on Cox & King’s “Splendours of Chile” tour my previous competition winnings consisted of a sweet potato from Sainsbury’s supermarket. So when I received the email announcing that I had won the two-week escorted Cox & Kings tour, I was slightly suspicious.
Admittedly, the entry form required a huge amount of intelligence and agility. If I remember correctly, I entered an online competition in which I had to match a parrot with a parrot, a rainbow with a rainbow, a sunset with a sunset, etc. Once I emailed Cox & Kings and was assured that I didn’t have to buy a timeshare or transfer my life savings to a foreign bank account, the celebrations started.
I couldn’t be happier: a tour of Chile was definitely on the bucket list and for sentimental reasons. Twenty-three years ago, I had spent a few days at the Hotel Carrera in Santiago. Nine months later my second son arrived. I promptly invited said son to be my guest on the tour and he immediately refused. As did my first son… while I could guarantee lots of rocks, no festivals would accompany them.
Once I found a dear friend as a travelling companion, other obstacles appeared. According to the weather online, I needed to become Princess SummerFallWinterSpring (remember Howdy Doody Americans?) to pack for temperatures that varied from 0-32C (32-86 F), so my long underwear nestled next to the sunblock in my suitcase. In preparation, I googled restaurant recommendations, listened to “Mi Vida Loca” on BBC languages and borrowed a guidebook from my local library.
On November 8th, our flight departed from London and on the 9th we arrived in Santiago where Valentina, our sensational tour guide, met us. Valentina was named after the first Soviet female Cosmonaut and, like the Starship Enterprise, our engaging guide “boldly went where no man (or woman) has gone before” – out on a tour with 24 UK travellers. Heaven knows what Valentina thought of us, but all in all it was a delightful group of seasoned travellers.
Our first stop was Santiago and I bee-lined it to the Hotel Carrera. Unfortunately the Hotel Carrera closed in 2003 and is now the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Sadly, the rooftop swimming pool is now a helicopter port and I couldn’t revisit the bar for nostalgia’s sake. A selfie would have to suffice.
Nevertheless, there were some familiar sights: I dragged my companion to Chile’s oldest coffee house, Confiteria Torres, and the same waiter served our table. We had a hilarious meal as the only tourists at Fonte Alemana where our sandwich matched the Andes in size. I messed up all those 000 in the Chilean peso notes at Liguria restaurant and ran back to the restaurant waving the appropriate tip in my hand.
After a city tour and a delightful afternoon spent at a Chilean vineyard, off we flew to San Pedro de Atacama for three nights in the desert. Stunning landscapes, clear starlight skies, and a dip in a lithium rich lake. (My swimsuit stood up by itself the next morning, but I didn’t try to charge my iphone on it!) Although I’ve been to Old Faithful, we ventured up 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) to the El Talio Geysers. Ironically, the Brits pronounce “geysers” the way that Americans pronounce “geezers.” No offense travel mates, but “geezers” probably describes the tour group!
Oh then there was sundowner overlooking the desert sunset…
Below: San Pedro de Atacama
Our next stop from the desert was to the Chilean Lake district and Puerto Varas.
The weather in the Lake District didn’t cooperate entirely; our boat ride was a bit misty, and the trip to the base of the Osomo volcano positively blustery. Perhaps it was for the best, as the last volcano I visited erupted shortly after my trip! So thankfully for Chile, ‘LOL’ wasn’t ‘Lots of Lava’ but ‘Lots of Llamas’ instead!
From the lakes we travelled on to Puerto Natales and on to Torres del Paine and what was perhaps my highlight of the tour – a boat ride out to the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park. Believe me, this ice cube was big enough for any pisco sour!
I’m hard pressed to find any negatives to this trip. Perhaps a tour of an estancia in which the only thing uglier than the décor were the photos of the ancestors? Or the morning I tried the “calafate” (a Chilean berry) shampoo in the hotel and smelled like Ribena all day?
Finally, the fact that I returned from Chile relatively empty handed was disappointing. I came determined to purchase a beautiful hand-knit sweater. Unfortunately the only ones I saw were made in Peru and featured a Nordic design that made me resemble a condor hovering in flight.
What were the highlights of Splendours of Chile?
- Stunning scenery – deserts, fiords, volcanos, salt lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. Chile has it all in abundance.
- Wonderful wildlife: We were blessed to have a ‘birder’ on board. Even I recognised the pink flamingos and soaring condors. Thankfully, my flat is too small for a pet vicuna but they are lovely dainty graceful animals.
- Agreeable travel companions: Not a single chronic latecomer or complainer. (Valentina may disagree.)
- Valentina – an amazing guide with a ready smile, exhaustive knowledge and unfailing good humour.
- A lifetime supply of pisco sours. My first (admittedly after some airport lounge refreshment in Madrid) sent me into a sound slumber for the long flight to Santiago. Then, no matter what time we arrived at our hotel, the welcome pisco sour was not far behind.
To my friends who always ask, where in the world are you? This trip I could reply: “In the Valley of the Moon”…
….and at the “End of the World!”
As our plane departed from Santiago, we circled round to gain the height to cross the Andes and got this view. “Adios” Chile and “Muchos gracias” to Valentina and Cox & Kings!
Paula Sinclair travelled on the Splendours of Chile group tour; see more information about the tour >
All images (except the first) © Paula Sinclair.